The European Union has decided to link its economic sanctions on Russia to the implementation of the Minsk agreement, a deal reached last month on a cease-fire and political settlement of the conflict between government forces and Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Speaking at an EU summit in Brussels on March 19, European Council President Donald Tusk said that EU leaders decided that "the duration of economic sanctions will be clearly linked to the complete implementation of the Minsk agreement, bearing in mind that this is only foreseen by the end of 2015."
A formal, legal decision on whether to extend sanctions on Russia's financial, defense and energy sectors that expire in July will only be taken at the next EU summit in June.
But the link to the Minsk agreement effectively extends the sanctions through December, because the accord calls for Kyiv to regain full control over it border with Russia by the end of the year.
Tusk said the EU would be ready to impose further sanctions over Russia's interference in Ukraine if necessary.
He said the decision showed the common resolve of the 28 EU nations in the face of Russian involvement in the conflict, which has killed more than 6,000 people since April and ratcheted tension between Moscow and the West up to levels unseen since the Cold War.
Moscow says the sanctions are unjustified and denies involvement in the conflict despite what Kyiv and NATO say is incontrovertible evidnce it has sent troops and weapons into Ukraine to support the separatists, who hold parts of two provinces bordering Russia.
The EU agreement was a compromise between nations such as Poland and Lithuania, which had pushed for a formal decision now to prolong sanctions through December, and others -- including Hungary and Greece -- that wanted to delay any decision until shortly before the measures are due to expire.
Earlier in Brussels, Tusk met with Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of trying to divide Europe over Ukraine.
He told Tusk that a European show of unity would be "the best answer."
Yatsenyuk also expressed optimism about European backing for his government's call to the UN for international peacekeepers to be sent to eastern Ukraine.
"Everyone wants to get peace in Europe. One of the tools to reach this peace is to deploy peacekeepers," Yatsenyuk said.
The European leaders did not impose any new sanctions, in part because fighting has decreased sharply under a cease-fire that entered into force on February 15 as part of the Minsk agreement.
The deal was agreed in the Belarusian capital on February 12, at talks between Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and French President Francois Hollande.
It was signed by representatives of Ukraine, Russia, and the rebels.
Prospects for full implementation have been clouded this week by a dispute over Ukraine's obligation to grant limited self-rule to rebel-held areas under a "special status" law.
Ukraine's parliament passed "special status" legislation on March 17 but stipulated that it will take effect only after elections are held in accordance with Ukrainian law, a condition Russia and the rebels claim violates the Minsk accord.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called on March 19 for a new meeting of officials from France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine, possibly next week,in order "to prevent the situation from deteriorating."
Putin said on March 20 that the Minsk agreement had created "a real opportunity for the gradual de-escalation of this conflict."
"I very much hope that the authorities in Kyiv will implement the Minsk agreements in full," Putin said during a visit to Kazakhstan.
At the summit in Brussels, EU leaders asked EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini to come up with better ways to counter what they call Russian disinformation about the Ukraine conflict.
According to a description circulating among EU officials seen by Reuters, the new Brussels unit's main tasks will be the "correction and fact-checking of misinformation" and to "develop an EU narrative through key messages, articles, op-eds, factsheets, infographics, including material in Russian language."
Also on March 20, a key European Parliament committee voted in favor of a plan to provide Ukraine with 1.8 billion euros ($1.92 billion) in medium-term loans to help lift the country out of recession.
With reporting by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, AP, Reuters, AFP, and Interfax